Weekend Film Recommendation: A Civil Action

The courtroom drama can be a pretty tired plot vehicle for many, perhaps justifiably so. It sometimes seems that the clichés are so well rehearsed that even the counter-clichés appear just as threadbare: people redeeming themselves through the law (e.g., see here and here) are about as compelling as people damning themselves because of it (e.g., see here and here). In this weekend’s film recommendation, Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action, there’s no attempt to play around with or develop those clichés. Nonetheless, the true story from which this dramatization is lifted is more than enough to hold your attention.

John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a Boston-based personal injury lawyer. It doesn’t take long to develop an unflattering opinion of Schlichtmann: no sooner has he dismissed the charge of being a mere ‘ambulance chaser’ than he is distributing business cards to car crash victims as he passes by them on the street. There’s no question that Schlichtmann is in it for the money, as he’ll leap to consider the depths of his clients’ pockets—or those of his wretched opponents—far sooner than he will consider the probity of his legal arguments. He’s a money-grubbing lawyer of the scummiest kind.

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Schlichtmann receives a phone call from the distressed mother of a recently deceased child. She entreats him to visit her and the parents of seven other recently deceased children—all taken by leukemia—in the nearby town of Woburn. Schlichtmann’s initial inclination is to decline because of the prospect of a paltry payout; it’s just not good business, as far as he’s concerned. But the suspicion of a huge payout from a big name corporation’s toxic dump upstream spurs him to take the case and pursue it feverishly.

After the initial premise is set, surprisingly little focus is then spent on the film’s original motivations, namely Schlichtmann’s efforts to uncover malfeasance and the thorny mismatch between his venality and his clients’ desire for no more than a formal apology.

Instead, the film’s pace and tone pivots to Schlichtmann’s sparring with the opposing counsel Jerry Facher, played by Robert Duvall. Duvall is as superb as expected, with an understated and unplaceably buffoonish villainy to his demeanor. Facher’s free time is spent lecturing at Harvard, where he delights in instructing his students on how to avoid the very traps in litigation that he has set for Schlichtmann. While Schlichtmann has flair and flourish, Facher has cunning and wile.

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The conceit pitting these two lawyerly styles against one another doesn’t translate into the courtroom bombastics that might typically be expected from late-‘90s Hollywood. However, the juxtaposition of the two characters sets up a nicely developed theme, which recurs throughout the film, of the centrality of prestige and class in the law. It goes to show that it’s not so much the substance of the arguments, and in some instances it’s not even the skill of their delivery, that wins the day; sometimes, the gates remain closed simply because you’re just not cut from the right cloth to compete among the big boys (and boys is accurate—the supporting cast, though tremendous, is almost exclusively male). As Keith pointed out so well in his review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, even when at their most subtle these observations on class can be used to devastating effect: Facher has few scruples parading his old-money connections with the judge (a delightfully crabby John Lithgow) for all to see, just as Schlichtmann is evidently perturbed by his dull Cornell pedigree among the Harvard muckety-mucks.

Of course, all of this is merely a prelude to learning that the Woburn case isn’t really the film’s point at all. Rather, it’s Schlichtmann’s search for purpose and his journey toward redemption after his colossal abdication of moral sense at the film’s outset. That journey is troubled and arduous, and he has few compunctions with endangering the livelihoods of his partners in the process.

As mentioned, the supporting cast is a treat. It includes Sydney Pollack, Stephen Fry, William H. Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, Tony Shalhoub, Dan Hedaya, and James Gandolfini in a much more tender role than the macho kind for which he was traditionally associated (e.g., see my reviews of True Romance and In the Loop).

12 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: A Civil Action”

  1. You make me want to watch this movie Johann. When the erratic Travolta is good, as it sounds like he is here, I always think a director deserves credit, so hats off to Zallian, a guy known mainly as a screenwriter.

    1. Quite right — Travolta has impressive range, but he has about as many hits as misses in his career.

  2. I saw this movie when it premiered, with great anticipation, as I had written many of the scatterplot SAS programs that Marv Zelen, the Harvard School of Public Health epidemiologist, used to identify the pockets of cancer in Woburn. I also had tested water from various wells, and dissected more mouse fetuses than I care to remember (you had to count their ribs, which were very very small, and one slip of the scalpel would ruin the sample). I don't recall any of the roles being Zelen himself, there was probably a composite academic among them somewhere, but my recollection was that the film's treatment of the epidemiology was rather on target, even if the legal battle was the focus. I'll have to watch it again. And I agree, Travolta was very good indeed, as was Duvall and the supporting cast. And let me assure you, Grace was the villain, probably a bigger villain in real life than the litigious-conscious producers admit in the film.

    1. Fascinating!

      Lest I reveal spoilers, I won't say too much about Grace's portrayal in the film. Although I found it interesting that they are not allowed to represent themselves on screen; instead, their presence is entirely ventriloquized through their counsel Facher. A very interesting choice, in my view.

  3. I have never heard of this film, but the plot seems to resemble Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, also set in Boston, where Paul Newman is an alcoholic broken down lawyer, once a rising star, up against a wily James Mason. Hearing that Newman is about to call a black medical expert, Mason issues instructions to "get a black lawyer to sit at our table".

    Again, the case involves a medical malpractice suit against a Catholic hospital. Irish actor Milo O'Shea plays a judge who lets his haste to get to his lunch decide key rulings.

    The Verdict is a solid courtroom drama, like this film.

    1. Paul Newman is as reliable a seal of quality as Mirren or Goodman, so I'll take the recommendation gladly!

      1. So what's Sidney Lumet? Chopped liver? But seriously, it is a good movie, and in some places difficult to watch as a lawyer, since a lot of us (I hope it's not just me) feel like we're in over our heads a lot of the time. Look forward to seeing A Civil Action.

    2. I once saw The Verdict described as a feel-good movie. That would be one way to view it, but it's not what I walked away with.

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